some say Selma is revisionist about MLK, LBJ relationship


The film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, opened on Christmas Day (in select cities) to positive reviews (such as this one in Variety and this one in the New York Times). Yet some have charged that the movie misstates an important aspect of the historical record: the relationship between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson. Selma portrays an LBJ who resisted the Voting Rights Act and proved unwilling to support King's movement. Two people have contested this claim, arguing that the film takes so much dramatic license on this point that it amounts to a significant distortion of the historical record.

The Washington Post published an op-ed from former Johnson aide Joseph Califano, Jr. "Contrary to the portrait painted by Selma," Califano wrote, "Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. were partners" in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In order to raise awareness of racial discrimination in voting, Johnson advised King to find and publicize the worst examples of the practice. It was this strategy, Califano claims, which led King to Selma. Thus Johnson was not an antagonist to the civil rights leader, but an ally of King's.

At Politico Magazine, Mark K. Updegrove, a presidential historian and the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library, echoes Califano's point. On Updegrove's telling, Johnson did not resist the Voting Rights Act: he simply knew, as a practical politician, that the votes were not yet there. Updegrove quotes Andrew Young's account that Johnson "kept saying" to King, "I just don't have the power. I wish I did." King's response, he told Young later, was that "we've got to find a way to get this president some power."

Both writers quote from the same telephone call between the president and the civil rights leader. In the call, the Johnson told King to "find the worst conditions that you run in to in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina" and put that "one illustration...on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings." Following that strategy, Johnson argued, would force "the fellow that didn't do anything but drive a tractor" to realize that "that's not right; that's not fair." The support of this synecdochic tractor-driver would allow Johnson to "shove this thing" through Congress.

These accounts reinforce a classic model of the relationship between political officeholders and activist organizations in American democracy, one in which movements create the political conditions that allow leaders to shape policy. (This understanding is often summarized by reference to an apocryphal story in which Franklin Roosevelt closed a meeting with a group of labor leaders by saying, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.") The dueling interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement also reopen an issue from the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, during which Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of political leaders by arguing that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," because "it took a president to get it done." Some took this as Clinton downplaying King's contributions. While she denied this interpretation, the incident did not help her with African American voters.

This putatively historical debate, then, reveals something about competing views about the process of democratic political change in the past or the present. For what it's worth, the opinion pieces reflect my own personal understanding of the facts about Johnson and King. But I am not an expert on King, Johnson or the Civil Rights Movement, and I haven't even seen Selma yet! So for now I can only say that it will be interesting to see if any other historians contest these accounts by advancing interpretations that are closer to the one offered by the film.

Selma opens everywhere on January 9.

A still from Ava DuVernay's film <i>Selma</i>

A still from Ava DuVernay's film <i>Selma</i>